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Transcript: The Beat with Ari Melber, 12/6/21

Guests: Barbara Boxer, Ken Burns


The Department of Justice sues Texas over alleged voting rights violations. Is President Biden getting media treatment on par with Donald Trump? Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns speaks out. More data about the Omicron COVID variant emerges.



Hi, Ari. Happy Monday.

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Happy Monday, Nicolle. Thank you so much.


And welcome to THE BEAT, everyone. I am Ari Melber.

We have a lot that we`re tracking right now, news out of DOJ, the attorney general suing Texas for a scheme to basically use voter maps to help Republicans cheat. That`s what the prosecutors at DOJ are saying here under the Garland leadership.

Also, there`s the perception, and then there`s the reality. We have brand- new numbers today about what the press may be getting wrong about Joe Biden and why he`s getting as tough a treatment sometimes as Donald Trump. That`s different than the D.C. narrative, but it`s what the data shows.

And later, white supremacists out there in the open at the Lincoln Memorial. We have Ken Burns on that and so much more. Very excited to welcome Ken Burns to THE BEAT later night.

But we begin with, if it`s not outright good news, let`s call it cautiously possibly good news, because we are getting optimism, based on data, in the fight against the new coronavirus variant, the Omicron. It is surging across the globe. And that`s not the greatest thing. It`s also surging across America.

You remember when it was a couple states. Then it was five or six. Now 18 states. You can see the spread. More than 50 countries have recorded cases around the world. And with everything that has been learned and been applied, there has been a quicker deployment than the initial reaction to COVID to get international safety travel protocols into effect.

The variant is believed already to be more transmissible than other variants. So that`s something that authorities are trying to deal with in real time.

Now, where`s the good news? Well, since last week, when the first case hits United States, there are signs, based on what they`re learning, that the worst possible thing that can happen in any illness may not be happening much at all yet here, and Dr. Fauci laying out the cautious optimism, mixed with that evidence-based good news.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: It`s too early to really make any definitive statements about it. Thus far, it does not look like there`s a great degree of severity to it. But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations.


MELBER: You could call this an educated thesis at this point, not a final conclusion.

You heard the doctor there stress that. And we had in the news, when we draw on experts and sources, have to stress that as well. How many people have gathered somewhere and heard people complain about the guidance changing or the facts changing? But some facts, some evidence, some indication is better than nothing. And it doesn`t mean that everyone, including the news, doesn`t have the ability to rephrase over time as we learn more.

But what you just heard him say bears repeating. It doesn`t look like there`s a great severity to it. That is Fauci`s way of saying that, based on the available data, people are not dropping dead from this variant. Not only that. When it comes to the recorded measures -- and, sometimes, things happen that haven`t been recorded yet -- but as of this hour tonight, America, I can tell you zero recorded deaths linked to Omicron.

The average hospital stay in South Africa with this variant started out at about eight days. Those were people who were hit early, but it`s gone from eight days down to under three days in the hospital. So the preliminary information shows something that spreads easily and quickly, which you have to get on top of, but, in the end, as it moves through the human body, appears to be less severe.

For example, we`re being told that people who got it didn`t need the supplemental oxygen associated with some other treatments. Few required high-level care, according to STAT, fewer still admitted to intensive care.

Some major questions here on whether this is what this whole variant will boil down to and how vaccines will continue to come into play. More information is needed. But we are past day one or zero information on what was obviously something anyone would be concerned about, which is, oh, gosh, a new variant. It`s spreading quickly. What are we dealing with?

Early results now, again, the experts are saying they are positive.


DR. PAUL OFFIT, CHILDREN`S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA: These vaccines have done just that. They have done it for the first variant, the so-called D614G variant. They have done it for the Alpha variant. They have done it for the Delta variant, meaning protection against serious illness is provided by these vaccines.

And, in all likelihood, that will also be true for the Omicron variant.


MELBER: And if that stays true for the Omicron, then everyone who has been doing a little catchup work to learn about a thing that is real -- you don`t necessarily want to get it if you can avoid it, it spreads quickly -- but is not deadly.

And the way you deal with something that spreads, like all those kind of shopworn comparisons to a flu that generally doesn`t kill reasonably healthy or young people who aren`t at risk, well, that`s something that`s going to be patrolled differently, internationally and otherwise, or even in the workplace, as compared to variants that might be more deadly.

Now, the fight here involves everything. It involves what and what you do. And what you do is often related to what you know. What if what you know is wrong? That`s something that journalists and scientists are simply to get really in the weeds of, even if we all sometimes make mistakes.


The scientific method involves, then, taking a look and correcting any of those mistakes.

I mention that by way of introduction to a report that is serious and also, for anyone who has a heart, should keep you empathetic about who pays the biggest toll for misinformation. It may affect all of us because we are in a society that is dealing with these pandemics, but it has the biggest effect on the people who, sadly, believe it and make decisions based on it.

Reading from an NPR report that counted this up, since may 2021, people living in counties that voted heavily for Trump have been nearly three times, not a bit more, not double, but triple the times as likely to die from COVID, NPR. tracking that relates to misinformation with a political hue, disinformation the right.

And it`s not just FOX News. It`s on Facebook. It`s on social networks. It`s people sharing it with each other as it becomes a popular reaction and people believing what is not true.

Then you have people in power and authority pushing this along even now. Take MAGA Congressman Matt Gaetz from today.


REP. MATT GAETZ (R-FL): Still, the best vaccine we found is Mother Nature`s vaccine. It`s contracting the virus. That is what has provided the greatest protection, the most durable protection over the longest period of time.


MELBER: Fact-check, false. What you`re hearing there is this statement that is designed to appeal to people`s idea that they might want to avoid the vaccine mixed with information offered to people.

And the people who it will hurt most of the people who believe Mr. Gaetz.It`s still going today.

I want to bring in Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious disease expert at Boston University, and Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author.

Welcome to you both.

Doctor, dealer`s choice. Your reaction to both what seems to be the emerging cautious optimism about Omicron, and that report, which, as I mentioned, really should give everyone pause before you kind of judge the most annoying person in your Facebook feed. The data suggests that person and the people who believe it may ultimately pay for it with their lives.

DR. NAHID BHADELIA, NBC NEWS MEDICAL CONTRIBUTOR: And, Ari, they`re both related. And I will talk about why.

I think -- let me start with the first one. There is a potential positive signal that we need to follow through the noise. But the data, I think, in my mind, as Dr. Fauci has said, we need a lot more of it.

And one caution that I will give to folks is that, a lot of times, you have a sampling bias when you have a small number of cases that you`re looking at the beginning. And then when you have a bigger number of patients who get the disease, potentially an older population -- for example, the South African report that you put it had a lot of young people, who tend to do well.

And so we need to do two things. We need to see if there`s bears out in a bigger group of people and also different health care systems. Will we see similar interaction with the disease and severity when we see Omicron starting to take over in other countries?

The reason I`m also cautious and then why it`s related to that second story is that, I want people to know that, even though this potentially could portend a positive signal, that the data is not strong enough for people to change their behavior. It`s not there yet for you to say, I don`t need a vaccine, this looks like a mild variant, or, oh, my own risk assessment is, I can do this now because this looks like it`s all going to go away.

We don`t know that yet. All too early for mortality. The other thing is, Delta is still the number one variant in this country, and will be for most of the winter surge going into the next month. And so people shouldn`t be changing their behavior, and really getting those vaccines and getting boosted.

MELBER: Yes, I mean, to simplify that point, for anyone who`s thinking along those lines, you have got a tornado that`s hitting land, and that`s regular COVID and Delta.

And then there`s talk there might even be a second tornado. How bad is it going to be. And that`s Omicron. Not getting your house in order for the tornado that`s here because the second one might not come is just not logical. But, as you say, some of these things get blended.

Jon, I want to read you a little bit more from the NPR report here. Since May 2021, as mentioned, it says people living in those counties were three times as likely to die in October. It goes on, the reddest tenth of the country saw death rates that were six times higher than, say, the area that was the bluest tenth.

Misinformation appears to be a major factor. Polling shows Republicans far more likely to believe false statements about COVID and vaccines.

And I will just bear down on the empathy needed here, Jon, because one of the things that sometimes happens is, people are frustrated with those other people. Granted, they`re adults. They have got to make their own decisions. We`re all in a society together, social contract, et cetera.

But I think, if you`re human, you would feel empathy for people that are misinforming themselves on the way to a higher death rate. I mean, that`s sad for them too.


I mean, democracy only works if we see each other as neighbors, and we can`t only see people with whom we agree as neighbors. That`s not how that works.



MEACHAM: I remember thinking in March of 2020 -- I remember exactly where I was sitting. And it was very clear. Sanders and Biden had had their sort of elbow bump debate.

And I remember thinking, lord, let this not be a partisan pandemic. The lord did not answer that prayer, among many others.

I`m not particularly surprised. I`m glad to see -- I`m interested to see the evidence. I don`t think it`s particularly surprising.

To offer just a sociological view, as opposed to a statistically driven one, something happened in the country beginning about 1965; `64 and `65 were years in which pollsters found that 77 percent of the country believed and trusted in the federal government to do the right thing some or most of the time, 77 percent. And that`s down to 10, 12 percent now, starting about `64, `65.

So when you look at that, the polio epidemic is before that. So it`s interesting. There was almost no polio vaccine hesitancy, even though that that happened as Joe McCarthy was -- it was a little bit after that, but same period, where distrust of institutions was certainly ambient, but not decisive, in the `50s.

Starts to grow in the mid-`60s, Vietnam, obviously, Watergate. We can list off things over the last 20 years where people have looked at institutions, governmental, the private corporations, churches, schools, any number of things, journalism, and they can find things to distrust. They can find reason to distrust.

But what`s happened is, whatever the reasonable skepticism one has about any institution, which is what we should have -- that`s why we have reason -- there`s been what George Bush 41 used to call mission creep, right? It`s metastasized.

And so the distrust is not -- what began as skepticism has become distrust, and now it`s becoming literally the cause of disease. And so I think it`s both a -- it`s a literal one in this case. It`s also figurative, because this is part of what the problem is in the democracy itself.

MELBER: Doctor?

BHADELIA: Yes, it`s a perfect storm, right? Aside from what Jon said, there`s this erosion of trust in institution.

It`s also that, when you deal with novel pathogens, novel infections, science is changing. We just talked about this. And that environment where you have to keep changing policy on a policy on an evolving science, that also breeds more distrust, as people who are not paying close attention are thinking, why is the science changing all the time? Why are you telling me different things?

Then you have got an environment where there`s just so much information, social media. You`re sharing a lot more information than you were even 50 years ago, and there`s a lot more voices. Potentially, that may have a bigger role in sharing disinformation and misinformation in a way that they didn`t, including malicious actors.

The last bit is, I think, taking advantage of all of those things is the highly politicized nature of our of right now, where there is an active movement to use the COVID, to use this uncertainty to drive that division even further.


On the way that the -- adapting information requires policy, take a listen to the surgeon general here being pressed over which countries they have been regulating for travel.


MARGARET BRENNAN, HOST, "FACE THE NATION": So, if it`s a question of fairness, it`s either all countries get banned or lift the ban. And you have scientists in South Africa saying, this is discriminatory.

DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: Well, again, Margaret, if you look at this, we`re in a very different situation than we were in the beginning of the pandemic, when travel restrictions were put in place.

And one of the big differences, Margaret, is that we have travel measures, safety measures, that actually are helping reduce the risk. These are meant to be temporary measures. Nobody wants them to be on for any longer than they need to be. And that`s why we`re continuously reevaluating them.


MELBER: The surgeon general they`re doing what you don`t necessarily want your doctor to do if we were in the doctor`s office, which is ducking and dodging the question, which factually is about whether the countries chosen were justified by the health data at the time or not.

Do you have a view, Doctor?

BHADELIA: Well, I think it was a reactionary measure. We know the travel bans can have -- it`s naturally feel-good. We feel like we`re doing something.

But, a lot of times, we forget that they can have a negative measure. People don`t want to share data with us when we all of a sudden take measures that may not have as much benefit for us, our country, but may impact other countries heavily.


But at least, at this point in time, it`s become very clear that this is everywhere.

MELBER: Right.

BHADELIA: And, certainly, I -- what I hope the Biden demonstration is doing is taking a look at that policy and looking to remove that soon.

MELBER: And, Jon Meacham, I do this -- the journalist in me does this.

You`re a longtime writer, journalist, historian, and a sometime adviser to President Biden in speeches in the past.


MELBER: You`re not the medical adviser.

But what do you think of this debate, which is essentially that the administration, according to health care guidance they say they got, brought the hammer down on some countries in Africa and not other countries that also apparently have the same variant?


MEACHAM: I actually don`t know.

And it is the one good thing about this is that I am not a medical adviser, because that would really push things over a cliff.

I will say this. I think that we live in a media climate. And I`m saying media in the -- in a very broad sense, because we`re all part of the media now, right? Everybody`s Cronkite. We all have the capacity. We all have -- the barrier to entry for anyone to say anything and get people to see it and hear it and read it, those barriers have never been lower.

And because of that, somehow, we have, in a way, shortened our patients. We have curtailed our capacity to allow people, as the doctor was saying, to change their guidance, to change what they think, based on evidence.

And that`s what we want, not just in health, but in politics, in statecraft. We want governments to give it to us straight. Franklin Roosevelt said, after -- Pearl Harbor is tomorrow, the anniversary -- that winter, he said, the news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.

Well, sometimes, when you give it straight from the shoulder, you`re not -- you`re going to get it wrong. And then you come out and you say, all right, we were wrong about that.

And I think that the CDC and others have been -- I think, just as a citizen, have been pretty good about that. It just requires us to have a certain amount of patience, a certain amount of empathy, to use your first term, not simply outward, but upward as well.

MELBER: And, did you know, Doctor, that we`re all Cronkites now?

If Jon Meacham says it, it may be true.


MEACHAM: Think about it. Think about it. Anybody can say anything.

MELBER: Right, and get hurt. A lot of people get hurt.

I want to thank both of you, Jon Meacham and Dr. Bhadelia, for kicking us off.

I want to tell everyone what`s coming up.

I mentioned the DOJ going after Texas. They say Republicans there violated the civil rights rules in the Voting Rights Act. Neal Katyal is here on that and more.

Plus -- this is funny. Jon Meacham was just talking about how we`re all media. Well, how is the media actually doing as it covers a very different presidency? The results cut against some right-wing complaints and narratives. We have data on that.

And then, before the hour is through, I am honored to tell you filmmaker Ken Burns on THE BEAT and democracy in peril.

Stay with us.



MELBER: Turning to something pretty interesting, President Biden`s ending this first year as president with two dueling realities, a policy agenda with many measurable wins, the vaccine rollout, stimulus checks, infrastructure spending leading to a job surge, historic drop in child poverty, stock market going higher than it ever did under Trump.

That`s a lot of things. And then there`s the other reality of more COVID, which we just covered in the top of the broadcast, more inflation, more spats in Washington, which has been driving his media coverage into very negative territory.

A new count finds that recent coverage of Joe Biden is about as negative as media coverage of Trump. Just think about that.

This is not an opinion. This is based on "The Washington Post" going over 200,000 total articles with a kind of a data research service, which found, in essence, that, overall, Biden`s current coverage is worse than Trump`s was for a similar period of time.

The chart you see here shows the positive and negative sentiment of news coverage in Trump`s last 11 months and Biden`s first 11 months. And the lines you see crunch all of that data to find Biden right now, you see in blue, crashing below Trump`s 2020 when it comes to media coverage, even when Trump was facing his own COVID surges, his own loss at the end of that year and then cheering on the impeachable criminal insurrection.

"The Post" writing this chart shows that Trump got press coverage as favorable as or even better than Biden is getting. And this is not just about conservative outlets. There`s reporting about polarization, FOX News, but just take a look at some journalistic networks covering all the bad news swirling recently in the Biden era.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Biden is really taking a hit in his approval rating on a number of issues.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Biden, and even investors on Wall Street tried to push past Friday`s disappointing report from the Labor Department. It showed the slowest monthly jobs growth yet.

JOHN KING, CNN: Our brand-new CNN poll releasing right now shows a deepening Biden slump. A majority of Americans disapprove of his performance so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The administration faces a variety of challenges, and some Americans are losing confidence.

MARIA BARTIROMO, FOX NEWS: Smash-and-grab robberies surging across the country. The White House blames the crime spike on COVID, instead of their own bad policy.


MELBER: Now, this is a wave of negative coverage.

And it actually matters for several reasons that we`re going to get into. Right off the top, you can say it certainly undercuts the frequent right- wing claim that the mainstream press is harder on Republicans or Trump than on Democrats or Biden.

And there is a measurable shift from what may have been a honeymoon period, where Biden started off first getting better coverage than Trump received. That was measured here. And then, when you reveal out to the full year, it dropped over the summer, staying low as Biden oversaw the Afghanistan withdrawal, COVID surges and inflation.

Now, Trump`s coverage was coming during a time when the economy was shrinking and one of the worst rates in modern history, a time when he publicly told the Proud Boys to stand by, and then led an attack on democracy itself going into that insurrection, plenty of stuff that was ripe for nonpartisan criticism.


Now, the press actually has a similar report card for both years. Now, some note the negative vibes are common now. Look at the AP, for example, reporting on the sluggish jobs report under Biden, about 210,000 jobs added this year in one month. The same nonpartisan outlet, though, called that number under Trump a robust 200,000.

And then there`s the fact that we are living through a very common expectations game. You follow the news and politics, so I bet you`re familiar with it. Remember when Donald Trump got fewer votes the first time he ran, but he did eke out an Electoral College victory, and there was this cottage industry of trying to send out reporters to understand what these Trump voters who were fewer in number thought?

It was partly because the media -- and I do work here -- but the media got it wrong, didn`t see it coming, and then wanted to really bear down on what those fewer number of Trump supporters thought. You didn`t see the same March of caravans to go report on what all these Biden voters thought.

And there are many reasons for that. And I`m not oversimplifying, and I`m not saying all reporters, but take a look, for example, here. Politico headlines Biden`s 44 percent approval rating as voters doubts rising about Biden`s health, mental fitness.

Compare that to how Politico treated the same 44 percent, but through the political prism of this whole big, unpredictable Trump train. Well, in 2017, 44 percent got you a very different headline, and more people read the headlines than the article, a triumphant, Trump voters, we would do it again, 44 percent.

Now, boiling anything down to what`s positive or negative is tricky. And the world does keep changing and adapting. But we are seeing the trends here. And we`re seeing something that goes beyond just the media. It goes to the headlines and the premises that people have about whether government is working.

And, yes, we all like to think that we`re independent, we`re not sheep, we don`t just repeat anything, but you look at this chart, and you think about what that means over time on a daily basis, whether people generally have the idea that things are going well or not, you`re free to disagree, you`re free to make up your own mind.

And, indeed, on THE BEAT, we try to give you the evidence to make up your own mind. But a lot of people who don`t follow this closely are being told over and over by multiple outlets in positions of authority that what`s going on in this presidency is as bad or worse as what went on in the last one.

Is that the right narrative? Is that true? Is something off here?

These are not rhetorical questions. I will pose them to a veteran and friend of THE BEAT, longtime U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, when we`re back in just 60 seconds.


MELBER: I`m joined by former U.S. Senator from California Barbara Boxer.

And we just walked through comprehensive nonpartisan data showing that, writ large, overall, not just FOX News, the media in general is covering Joe Biden right now as negatively or worse than Trump last year.

Your thoughts?

FMR. SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D-CA): My thoughts are, the media is wrong.

And I think the one point you showed us, where AP said that 200,000 jobs were robust growth in a month under Trump and sluggish under Biden, just proves the point.

But, Ari, with all my years of experience that you keep reminding me about every time you introduce me, which is fair...

MELBER: In a good way. In a good way.

BOXER: Of course. I`m proud of it. Are you kidding?

What I want to say is this, because I have been in elected life for 40 years up until 2017, and lost my first race, so I was in it even before that.

And what I have learned by watching the media over all these years, because, as an elected, it was very important to me.



BOXER: Because I always wanted to let people know what I was doing.

So what I notice is that, since Watergate, the press, writ large, the press has always decided, since Watergate, that they should be suspicious of elected leaders and they should be a bit cynical. And I don`t mind that. I have never minded it. I expected it through my whole career. And it`s healthy.

But what is wrong now, where I think the media has gone off-track, is this equivalency? Oh, yes, he did it this way. It was wrong. And guess what? The Democrats did it this way. The Republicans are trying to take away our democracy, but what are the Democrats doing to save it?

And it`s -- this is what worries me more than anything, because the press has to be truth-tellers, and then let us make up our minds. But don`t bend over backwards to be fair, when you`re not really telling us the truth when you say 200,000 jobs is sluggish on the one hand, and, on the other hand, when it`s Trump, it`s robust. That`s wrong.


Well, you make several subtle points there, Senator. One, as one paper that I read once said -- I`m paraphrasing -- the Watergate model rewarded a type of investigative ruthlessness that shifted the model from watchdog to attack dog. And an attack dog against a proven criminal president, like Nixon, might have been warranted for a period of time, but approaching everything that way.

You make that point. You also make the point about the false equivalence, which may come from -- and, again, I`m not talking about everyone -- you got to go evidence by evidence -- but may come from some reporters feeling like the working of the refs by the right-wing is affecting them. And that`s where you get "But her e-mails" or you get an effort to find a Biden scandal.

In your experience, is that something that you found in Congress and is that something that the Democratic Party has to actually deal with, at a time where there`s more pressure, Internet and otherwise, on the sort of news gathering than ever before?

BOXER: I think we have to tell the truth about what`s happening.

Getting ready for this interview, I thought you might ask me about some of Joe Biden`s accomplishments. And I went back, and I took a look at the very first bill that was passed, that very first COVID relief act, which literally, I think, helped save small business, helped save local government, gave stimulus checks to people to get us all through this awful pandemic, in terms of its terrible economic impacts.

And then the bipartisan infrastructure bill he got done, I was thinking back to how many times Trump said, it`s infrastructure week. I think he said that as many times as he said fake news. I mean, he just said it every other day, and never did it.

So why not tell the truth? This is remarkable. It`s going to get the lead out of water. It`s going to build our roads, our bridges, get the Internet out there. It`s going to be fabulous. And I predict we`re going to get this next bill, the Build Back Better bill.

But bottom line is, look, I`m so up front with you. I am a Joe Biden fan.


BOXER: I think he is a kind, compassionate, good human being who is effective. Is he the most dynamic speaker? Is he the most exciting speaker? No, he`s not.

But he is bringing this country back. And I feel terrible, really, to see that the press, not everybody, but a lot of the press, doesn`t want to let the public know exactly what`s happening without putting it into this big bubble that says, but some things are bad.

Just give us the facts. Just give us the facts, and we will decide.

MELBER: "Dragnet" vibes.


MELBER: Yes, I hear all of that, Senator. And I think it`s important.

I mean, if there`s -- look, if there`s an important story -- we were just posing the question and looking at the reporting earlier in the broadcast over whether the administration`s travel bans are fairly done or not. And that`s looking at that for the facts, whether it`s good or bad for the administration.

When you look collectively, though, everyone, personal and professional, struggles with constructive criticism. If we in the media look collectively and see that the current record of this administration`s being covered on par with an insurrectionist president, then you have to wonder where the positives and negatives are playing out. And that`s why we raise the topic and keep an open mind.

So, Senator, always good to see you. Thanks for weighing in.

BOXER: Thank you very much.

MELBER: Appreciate it.

We have a lot coming up, including an accountability report on why white nationalists are out marching openly at the Lincoln Memorial, democracy in crisis. The one and only Ken Burns is here with his rigorous historical perspective.


And the Biden DOJ gets tough on Republicans in Texas. It says they are illegally attacking minority voters.

Neal Katyal is on that important story with us next.



MERRICK GARLAND, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Today, the Justice Department has filed suit against the state of Texas for violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by creating redistricting plans that deny or abridge the rights of Latino and black voters to vote on account of their race, color or membership in a language minority group.


MELBER: News out of the DOJ today.

And I`m joined by former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal.

Tell us about this new move by DOJ.

NEAL KATYAL, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: So, Texas, Ari, is basically in a war against voting, in a war against democracy.

And what the Justice Department did today is absolutely right. What the Justice Department did is, they said, look, redistricting -- that`s the process of drawing voting districts -- occurs every 10 years, and there`s an obvious problem with what Texas is trying to do here.

They have dropped the number of Hispanic districts from 33 to 30, even though, in the last decade, half of the four million residents that Texas gained were actually Hispanic. So, Hispanic-majority districts, you would expect there to be at least 33 or 33-plus, unless monkey games are being played.


And I think that has two really important implications, Ari. One is that, for most of our lives, this law, this Texas redistricting plan, couldn`t have just gone into effect, because there was a Voting Rights Act since 1965 which said that, if such law is to take effect, it first has to be precleared, that is, given a thumbs-up, by either a court or by the Justice Department.

But because the Supreme Court recently struck that down, Texas` war against democracy can go into effect right away. So, what Merrick Garland is doing is saying, just wait a minute. We`re going to court to challenge that. So that`s the first thing.

And the second interesting point is, it directly intersects with the conversation you and I and others were having last week about abortion, because what the conservatives there were saying, hey, this should be up to the people to decide. Courts can`t take a decision about whether to have choice or not have choice away from the American people. It should be up to the legislatures.

And now, when it comes to the legislatures, they turn around and say, oh, we get to decide who comes in, and it`s not actually a representative majority in the legislature. Instead, it`s games being played to try and block out and drown out voting.

And these -- the Republicans are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

MELBER: And this is an assertive move by the Garland DOJ.

Republicans have been quite aggressive in their approach to redistricting. Democrats, though, in parts of the country have also played games or tried to figure out how to "game the system" -- quote, unquote.

Explain to us why the targeting of voters based on race, which is the allegation here, is distinct from the other somewhat anti-democratic, but perhaps non-racialized redistricting wars.

KATYAL: It`s a great point, Ari.

Unfortunately, the parties on both sides are engaged in political gerrymandering, drawing districts to suit themselves. That, in my view, is evil. But it`s doubly evil when you`re doing it on account of race.

The Voting Rights Act -- this part of the Voting Rights Act that the lawsuit was brought under, that hasn`t been struck down, at least not yet, by the Supreme Court. And that forbids a vote dilution or vote diminution or vote denials on account of race. And it traces its history back to the 15th Amendment, Reconstruction.

And it basically is designed to enforce that 15th Amendment promise. And there`s something particularly odious about gerrymandering done on behalf of race. It hearkens back to the worst things that happened in American society.

MELBER: Appreciate your keen legal breakdown and also your moral view here.

Neal Katyal, as always, thank you.

I want to remind people, you can go to for these breakdowns with Neal.

When we come back, it`s the thing I have been excited about all hour that I told you was coming.

Well, it`s here, award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns live on THE BEAT, next.



MELBER: People visiting the Lincoln Memorial over the weekend we`re greeted with quite a sight, hundreds of white nationalists marching down the steps with masks to keep their own identities hidden, wearing shields and other armor, many chanting -- quote -- "Reclaim America." You can see the upside-down American flags among many as well.

About 100 years ago, the KKK staged marched past many of these monuments in D.C. The chilling images are here. And it was, in essence, a very similar message, including the show of power, perceived or otherwise, to try to do it in Washington.

American democracy continues what some call decay and others call an outright slow-moving crisis in front of our faces. Take the new "Atlantic" magazine, which warns January 6 was practice.

Meanwhile, across our educational institutions, there are efforts to change our understanding and the next generation`s understanding of history itself or to use today`s political clashes to avoid any reckoning of what`s wrong in the past, be that slavery and racism and misogyny, and try to remove those stories for a political agenda today.

So, what is patriotism across all of this? That`s a big question that the nation continues to debate. President Obama, really seeing a lot of what we were headed up against, made his own argument about this in the context of renewed white nationalism and racism and a black president when marking the 50-year anniversary of Selma`s Bloody Sunday.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Their faith was questioned. Their lives were threatened, their patriotism challenge.

And yet what could be more American than what happened in this place?



MELBER: It`s a debate about truths regarding the past, but also where we want to go together into the future.

The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, celebrated for the time and depth he spends on these issues, is now calling for an honest appraisal of the past as critical to where we go.

He writes in "The Washington Post" being American means reckoning with our -- quote -- "violent history."

I`m joined now by Ken Burns. His many award-winning films address everything across our history from the Civil War, to Vietnam, to Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, and some of our favorite American cultural shared institutions like jazz and baseball. He also has launched an educational project that uses those films to teach about history.

Welcome to THE BEAT, sir.


KEN BURNS, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: Thank you, Ari. Good to be with you.

MELBER: Good to have you.

Tell us about what you were advocating, knowing all the mine fields here, and also knowing that I presume you want to continue your reputation as a thoughtful sort of nonpartisan or serious filmmaker, but you`re wading into this to urge what?

BURNS: Well, I think just openness.

We have always been interested in the facts in our works. And everything is rooted in the facts and the story. And when you hear about attempts to sort of adjust our history to something more comfortable, you realize that people who don`t want to discuss our past are actually afraid of it and wish to perpetuate a status quo.

It`s interesting that you brought up all of the subjects and the historical moments that you did.

We have created a site called UNUM, out e pluribus unum, out of many, one. We`re interested in the one and what it means to come together that is just in the U.S., us, and there`s no them. And the history of human beings, unfortunately, is creating them when there`s not.

Part of this is coming to terms with a complicated past and not being so afraid of it. And it may be our treatment of indigenous peoples, as we documented most recently for "The Washington Post" thing with the brutal massacre at Sand Creek in Colorado and all of that.

It may be coming to terms with the fact that white supremacy has been a huge part of who we have been since the very beginning. I have got three films that I have been working on just in the last few months. One is on Benjamin Franklin that`s coming out in April. In the mid-1700s, people are complaining about the Germans coming in there. What they want are the beautiful white and red, meaning the Native Americans. It`s ghastly comment by Benjamin Franklin, a founding father.

We just finished a film on Muhammad Ali that was out in which, because he took a faith-based decision not to fight in Vietnam, America couldn`t see a black man making a faith-based decision, that we felt like he was giving the middle finger to the country. And so they treated it as a political one. And we know all the problems that we went into.

And we`re working now on a history of the U.S. and the Holocaust, what we knew and what we didn`t know, what we did and what we didn`t do, what we should have done, and the ways in which, unfortunately, our own sordid past inspired aspects of the Holocaust, from copying our Jim Crow laws for exclusionary laws against Jews, to anti-immigration nativist policies that helped resurgent Ku Klux Klan, the footage that you shared from the United States Capitol, as ghastly as it is.

I mean, this is nothing new in American history. And coming to terms with it is, as the -- President Obama said, the most American thing to do. I don`t know why this is even an issue. I don`t know why you have me on, because this is why we were built.

We`re also a sports culture. We`re always complaining about what we didn`t do well in that game and how we have to do better here. And, somehow, people are willing in almost every aspects of life to be brutally honest about themselves and their friends and their team and their this, but we can`t do that about our history.

Our history has become a political football. And what we`re trying to do is return it to a place in which we can create a space with UNUM that was funded by the philanthropist David Rubenstein and by The Better Angels Society, create a space where people can have a conversation between the past and events that seem to rhyme

MELBER: Right.

BURNS: As we know, history doesn`t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

MELBER: Right. Yes.

BURNS: And I`m in the business of rhyming.

MELBER: Yes. Well, we like rhymes around here.

You`re also -- you touch on many important points, including the posture that we have.

Are we going to be historically literate, or are we going to let people -- and it`s happened a lot on the right, but there are also effort sometimes to remove the facts of things on the left -- but, without making an equivalence, it`s whether today`s agendas are going to somehow tell people, well, you can`t even acknowledge something happened, rather than, yes, you could love the Yankees, and really go in on what`s wrong with the bullpen, and nobody, as you say, in your baseball analogy, thinks, well, then you must not be a Yankees fan.

And so that type of patriotism, right, can exist. And yet it`s clearly under strain.

I got to get you on Hemingway, because, watching it, it was so brilliantly done. So hard, as a storyteller, to bring novels out of the page and into a story like that.

I just want to show a little bit here in the visuals, the decisions that face America, just torn asunder in so many ways, and then brought to life through this interesting person.

I want to play for our viewers a little bit of what you did, Jeff Daniels reading how Hemingway wrote about the First World War.


JEFF DANIELS, ACTOR: "There are no heroes in this war. All the heroes are dead. And the real heroes are the parents. Dying is a very simple thing. I have looked at death. And, really, I know."



MELBER: Hemingway`s words resonates so deeply.

Why and how did you tell the story?

BURNS: Well, I think -- I mean, first of all, he`s arguably the great American writer of the 20th century.

He went to war as a teenager. He saw bad stuff. And then he saw the way in which war gets sentimentalized. The barnacles of nostalgia and sentimentality encrust the war. I mean, we call the Second World War the good war.

It`s the worst war ever. Sixty million human beings had their lives extinguished in the course of it. How is this a good war? It may have been, as we call the first episode of our series on that, a necessary war.

And so I think what Hemingway wanted to do, just as his prose was fair, he wanted to strip away all the artifice that kind of grows up around this stuff. And so he said in the end that maybe it was only the names of the places that had real meaning in war, and that everything else becomes part of the gobbledygook.

MELBER: Right.

BURNS: And our attempt right now and to tell stories -- and it`s true in the Holocaust.

We have forgotten how much these things that are shocking us now, shocking us now, are very much a part of the past.

MELBER: Yes. It`s so important.

BURNS: And we have always been.

And not like they just bubble up to the surface every couple of decades, or the 1830s...


BURNS: Ari, they`re here all the time.

MELBER: I`m only jumping in because I`m supposed to -- I have to give my time now to Joy Reid.

BURNS: She deserves it.

MELBER: I would love to talk to you longer. I would love to have you back.

Ken Burns, thank you.

Thanks for watching THE BEAT. We will be right back.